Sexual abuse of teenage girls is pervasive in the United States. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that one in four girls will experience sexual abuse before she turns 18. In addition to the emotional anguish that abuse brings, it leads to a variety of mental disorders, academic struggles, pregnancy, substance abuse, suicide and aggression. In addition, it greatly increases the chance for a lifetime pattern as an abuse victim. Armed with a better understanding of how to recognize the warning signs of abuse, parents and caregivers can be prepared to recognize it and respond appropriately.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Physical signs are rare but easy to recognize: urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The most common indicators are emotional and behavioral, but these mistakenly can be attributed to the stereotypical problems of an adolescent girl. She may have nightmares or trouble sleeping, appear anxious or depressed, or she may become withdrawn or overly fearful. The sudden development of academic struggles or social anxiety warrants exploration. More drastic manifestations can include alcohol or drug abuse, self-harm or suicide attempts, and criminal behavior. Eating disorders are also common in response to sexual abuse. Unfortunately, adults often view these manifestations as the problem itself, rather than a response to a deeper issue.
Take an Early, Proactive Stance
The best indication that a teenager or adolescent girl is being abused is her own self-disclosure. Unfortunately, abusers are skilled at instilling fear and shame, making girls afraid to speak up. She may fear being blamed for the problem or, worse, that you won’t believe her. This fear is not unfounded, as denial and disbelief are the responses many young women encounter when they disclose abuse to a parent or trusted other, especially if the perpetrator is a family member. Begin educating girls as early as possible about abuse, how to recognize it and what to do if it happens. Promise her that she can tell you anything and trust you to take her seriously. Provide her with resources that will empower her to speak up rather than endure.
If You Learn That She Is Being Victimized
Despite your inclinations to the contrary, remain calm and supportive. Avoid judgment and assure her that she is not to blame. Tell her clearly that she did the right thing by confiding in you. Report abuse immediately (even if you only suspect it) to the proper authorities. Medical attention is necessary to test for injury as well as STDs and pregnancy, ideally from a female doctor who has experience with sexually abused girls. The most important step of all, however, is to seek counseling to help her cope with her experience.
At Havenwood Academy, compassionate counseling professionals understand the trauma that sexual abuse causes a young woman. The specialized programs used at Havenwood are designed to empower adolescent and teenage girls, allowing them to take charge of their emotions and behaviors. For sexual abuse victims, this is the key to healing and moving forward.